Dame Stephanie Shirley
August 25, 2014 Leave a comment
Dame Stephanie, or Steve as those closest to her call her, is the creator of the multibillion-pound IT software consultancy,the F1 Group, from which she made her £150-million fortune.
Dame Stephanie,was born Vera Buchtal to a gentile mother and German Jewish judge in Dortmund, Germany . Her family fled to Vienna only weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War and her parents put her and her nine-year old sister on one of the Kindertransport trains taking 1,000 refugee children across Europe to London to escape the Nazis.
“I remember arriving at Liverpool Street station; it was July but it was dull and grey . There were big bags of straw all around and the air was sickly with the smell of unwashed children. We had no idea what to expect. We were tired, hungry and traumatised,“ she says.
What she found, however, was a wonderful childless family who fostered her and her sister in the West Midlands where she lived until she was 18, even though both her parents survived the war. Later she took Brook from her love of the poet Rupert Brooke as her naturalised name.
Her refugee experience left a deep impression on her. “The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I’m motivated to make sure that each day is worth living, that my life was worth saving.”
As a clever young mathematician, she had to give up her job as an experimental software programmer at the Post Office, after marrying a colleague, physicist Derek Shirley because at that time,married couples where not allowed to work together in the public sector. “But it worked out well because I used my tiny pension to pay for the wedding.Then, after working for another company , I had an idea. I decided to start my own company , selling software. That doesn’t sound controversial today , but it sounded mad 50 years ago. With just £6, I set up my business from the dining table.“
That was 1962 and she was 29. The company was Freelance Programmers and, mainly because of the workplace misogyny she had faced, she employed only women software specialists, and, even more shocking for the time, women working from home. It was serious stuff: her team programmed Concorde’s black box flight recorder, among other projects.
It was the US “black power“ racial equality movement that inspired her, rather than feminism. “I hadn’t heard of feminism then.”Fast-forward a decade or so to the 1980s and Dame Stephanie and her thousands of freelancers were writing software for the UK’s top FTSE 100 companies. When F1 was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1996, a few years after she retired, it was worth £121 million. At its peak in 2000, Xansa as it was then renamed, was valued at £1.2 billion and employed 6,000 people.Even more unusual for the time, she gave a huge chunk of her shares away to the staff who ended up owning more than half the company . Seventy became millionaires.
“There are two things I am proud of employing women at a time when they couldn’t find work and giving away shares in the business. I was an early admirer of John Lewis, and saw how giving people ownership changes their relationship to work. What is surprising is that more entrepreneurs don’t do this today .”